Computer Use In Public Schools

(click here for the full published version of this article)

In this column I am going to present the results of a small study I conducted with some Masters in Education students in regards to computer use in schools. Computers have become ubiquitous in our society. Shopping and planning travel arrangements, social networking and entertainment are often done through the computer. Jobs from mathematics, the sciences, and even the arts usually require creative and skilled use of computer applications. Groups such as MoveOn have even created new forms of political organizing and activism. Blogging and other Web2 applications are changing the way people get their news. Most people now agree that our schools should therefore be preparing students to be technologically competent.

In considering what such a shift might mean for education, educational theorists interested in the topic have tended to predict one of two types of changes. Some have focused on the ability of the computer to empower students. Others have focused on the power of the computer to effectively and efficiently deliver instruction.

When personal computers were first invented, some claimed that computer technology would transform schools and education as we know it, bringing on new ways of teaching and learning that were not possible in the past. They argued that computers made the traditional role of teachers as lecturers—the sage on the stage—obsolete. Others, while not claiming the inevitability of such a change, promoted the idea that computers could be used to make constructivist, learner-centered teaching easier. With the use of such computers, teachers can and should now play more the role of guide, coach and facilitator.

Another view has been that computers would or should transform schools, not by changing our basic paradigm of learning and instruction, but as a more effective and efficient way to deliver instruction, or at least as a strong supplemental aspect to the curriculum. The idea of using technology for programmatic instruction goes back at least to the 1960s. According this view, the promise of programmatic instruction is now possible with the powerful computers of today. Computers can now assess the individual learner, and tailor the instructional pace and problem presented to that student. No longer will each teacher need to be the expert in instructional techniques, since it will be programmed into the computer. Once we have identified the steps, any skill can be taught most efficiently and effectively this way. While this approach could significantly alter the teacher’s role as deliverer of instruction or information, it does not substantially alter the role of the student.

As of yet, there is not much evidence of either of these becoming realities. There are many individual examples of teachers using computers in creative ways that do speak to the claim of a more constructivist paradigm (see Coppola’s book Powering Up for an example of this). On the other hand, these appear to be the exceptions that prove the rule (read Larry Cuban’s book Oversold and Underused for a full treatment of this). While there is some evidence that many schools are using computers in ways that match the programmatic instructional idea—that is for teaching basic skills—there is of yet little evidence that it has improved learning beyond small-scale examples.

Another issue that has concerned many in terms of technology use is the digital divide. Not surprisingly, those with more money and resources, and those of higher socio-economic-status, are more likely to have computers at home, and use them more powerfully. Potentially, public schools could be the place where those with fewer resources could get that access. However, often resources at schools mirror the resources of those in the community. Therefore, schools, rather than leveling the playing field for disadvantaged students, may exacerbate those differences.

In looking at 16 local public schools, evenly divided between primary and secondary, and between schools serving predominantly low-income or more middle and upper income students, we asked the following questions:

  • For what purposes do the students use the computer technology at the schools?
  • In regards to the above question, what differences do we see among schools? Do socio-economic factors correlate with those differences? Is the age level of students a factor?

In particular, for our analysis we divided computer use into two basic categories. On the one hand were uses we saw fitting more of the constructivist paradigm, where computers were tools the students use to enhance productivity and creativity. On the other hand were uses with skill and drill programs, or as assessment tools of basic skills, fitting the programmatic instruction model.

Our study did find that computers were used differently based on the socio-economic make up of the student body, and based on the grade level of students served. There did not appear to be any consistent factor related to quantity or quality of hardware available to students. However, schools serving middle- and high-income students were more likely to have well-trained computer technicians and teachers to help make the computers more useful. Schools that served low-income students mostly used computers for drill and practice type programs and as an assessment tool. Schools serving middle- and high-income students were more likely to be using computers in ways that built computer literacy, though still not to any large degree. We also found that high school students were more likely to use computers in ways that built their computer literacy skills than elementary students.

The data suggest that schools serving low-income students use the computers mostly for drill and practice due to pressures of the standardized testing. Most of these schools are Program Improvement schools. As such, boosting standardized test scores is their top priority. They are then likely to use the computer programs designed as test preparation. Schools serving middle- and high-income students, not being under those same pressures, may feel the freedom to use computers in ways that are more creative.

In regards to high school versus elementary student use, the findings suggest that high school students are already likely to have basic computer literacy skills, allowing teachers to assign more creative projects without having to spend much time teaching how to use the technology itself, especially among middle- and high-income student bodies.

This study suggests that if we want to create equity for students from all backgrounds we need to rethink what opportunities we provide for low-income students to use computers in ways that prepare them to be able to use them in as powerful ways as their more well-to-do peers.

Given that high SES students tend to have more opportunities and access to powerful technology at home, and that high SES students have more opportunities to use computers in ways that build computer literacy, current school practices are likely to exacerbate rather than mediate the digital divide between low and high SES students.

To change such practices a serious reconsideration of what it would take to really bridge the gap needs to be undertaken. Such an examination is unlikely at most schools serving low-income students, given the pressures on district administrators, principals, teachers on down to students, to raise short-term standardized test scores. With such pressures, almost everything else becomes at best secondary, if considered at all. Such pressures are only increasing under the current Federal policies.

It would also take an enormous input of resources. The real cost of having enough up-to-date computers, the software to use them well, the personnel to keep them running, and the professional development so that teachers would know how to use them effectively certainly does not exist in these times of economic crisis and education budgets cut to the bone.

These are real difficulties that all of us who are committed to equity face. Those of us who do work with low-income students are therefore forced to think of creative ways to overcome these difficulties. While it is true that all students need to learn to read and do basic arithmetic, it is not true that for some students this should be done at the expense of learning other things, including being powerful users of technology. The brains of poor kids do not learn and function differently than those of rich children. Therefore, we do not need to teach them in fundamentally different ways. Without being prepared with equal technological skills, this lack will be just one more division and barrier when these students leave school, leaving them less prepared not just for the world of work, but the world of social empowerment, and access to information to improve their lives and make informed decisions.

Even without a change in resources, it is possible to use technology differently than is now often the case. As the data showed, the difference in resources in the schools between types of schools was minimal. The real differences were in how they were used. These differences underscored an implicit or hidden curriculum. The use of computers as programmatic instruction treats students as passive recipients of knowledge and instruction whose job is to input the correct answer. The uses that the the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) standards promote, for example, ask students to be active participants in their own learning, using computers as a tool to create and convey knowledge. When these uses are promoted differently, for different types of students (which may coincide with the non-computer based instruction they are receiving), students come to view learning and the purpose of school in fundamentally different ways.

The argument for the need for this different instruction is, as mentioned earlier, the need to raise test scores. However, many schools have been effective using constructivist approaches to learning effectively with low- and high-income students alike. When we ask and support students to use their minds creatively and constructively, they not only do they do better on standardized tests of knowledge in the short term, but they also develop the abilities necessary to succeed in many arenas, in and out of school.

(click here for the full version of this article)

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